To lose weight you must be in a calorie deficit.
If there is no calorie deficit, there is no weight loss. It’s really that simple. However, even when you think you’re doing everything right you can still find yourself gaining weight in a calorie deficit.
What gives? The reality is if you’re gaining weight when you think you’re in a calorie deficit…then you’re not in a calorie deficit.
Even with the best of intentions, you can move from being in a calorie deficit to calorie maintenance or a calorie surplus very easily and it’s this change that messes up your fat loss progress.
I agree that there’s nothing more frustrating that going from steadily losing weight to stalled progress or even weight gain, which is why this article will look at the top reasons you’re not losing fat in a calorie deficit.
Not so much hidden as unaccounted for, these are the calories that sneak into your daily intake without your noticing. It’s things like the oil you cook with, the milk in your coffee or the handful of crisps from your friend’s bag.
Each thing on its own seems like no big deal but when you begin to add it all up it can quickly reverse your calorie deficit.
For example, if you drink 3 cups of coffee a day with a “splash” of milk in each one, use a “dollop” of oil in the pan when cooking dinner, snack on the ingredients whilst you cook and take a few crisps, nuts or biscuits from the snack table at work you can easily put away an extra 500 calories or more without realising.
Closely track everything you eat or drink, every day, for a week. This means scanning barcodes, weighing your food and being mindful of what goes into your mouth.
After a week of tracking this closely, you’ll be able to see where the problems are and either cut them out or readjust your daily intake to allow for them whilst still being in a calorie deficit.
I hate to break it to you, but you’re notoriously bad at accurately estimating your food intake, both in terms of simply remembering everything you’ve had to eat and drink across a 24 hour period and the actual calorie content of that food.
Don’t take it personally, you’re far from the only one. I certainly can still get it horribly wrong, and I’ve been at this for years.
This is seen time and time again in the research (1), which shows that whilst fitter people who are actively trying to change their weight tend to be more accurate than overweight individuals not trying to change their weight, everyone struggles to get it right.
With individuals underestimating the content of their meals by up to 25%, with the results being worse the larger the meal is (2). What’s more both exercising and sedentary individuals have been shown to underestimate calorie intake on both rest and training days (3).
The main key is to educate yourself on the calorie content of foods and the easiest way to do this is a keep a food diary. You can also ease your journey by embracing a level of boredom and eating the same week meals for a week at a time.
This helps reduce the mental stress of creating a menu that fits within your calorie and macros each day, makes it easier to prep weekly meals in advance and improve your adherence to your diet.
In the same way that estimating your calorie intake is difficult, so is predicting the number of calories you burn in a workout session. Research (4) shows that when estimating the number of calories burnt through exercise individuals overestimate the total by as much as 72%.
This is absolutely huge!
Research (5) also shows that in addition to drastically overestimating the amount of calorie burnt in exercise, trained and sedentary individuals also overestimated their calorie burn during rest days.
All of this can easily lead you to mistakenly overeat, whilst thinking you’re still in a calorie deficit.
In fact, this exact phenomenon is documented in the research (6) with one study concluding that “normal weight individuals overestimate EE [energy expenditure] during exercise by 3-4 folds [and], when asked to precisely compensate for exercise EE with food intake, the resulting energy intake is still 2 to 3 folds greater than the measured EE of exercise.”
The simplest solution is to stop guessing at how many calories you burn through exercise and start tracking. Maybe that’s through the use of a smart watch, step counter, heart rate monitor or another method.
The key is to start collecting data and building a clearer picture of how many calories you burn on an average day. At the very least you need to err on the side of caution when trying to estimate your calorie burn.
There is a sneaky process that happens in the body when you’ve been dieting for too long. It’s called adaptive thermogenesis, which is the (7) “disproportional or greater than expected reduction of resting metabolic rate (RMR).”
It happens independently of changes you would expect to see when dieting. For example, overall body weight i.e. how much you weigh and body composition i.e. how much muscle or fat you have.
All of this adds up to the slow reduction of your calorie deficit until one of two things happen;
Incorporate refeed days or diet breaks into your eating pattern to help reverse the effects of adaptive thermogenesis, give you some mental reprieve and kick-start fat loss again.
Aside from the effects of adaptive thermogenesis, you must consider the effects weight change has on your daily calorie needs.
As you lose weight your calorie needs will begin to change purely because you have less body mass to sustain. This means if you don’t adjust for this change you’ll find that over time what used to be a moderate calorie deficit will become your maintenance calories.
The solution for this is easy and only requires you to recalculate your daily calorie needs from time to time. A good indication that you need to do this is if your weight remained unchanged for 2 – 3 weeks or more.
Related: How to Track Your Progress
Sounds a bit weird this one doesn’t it?! How can a strict diet stop you from being in a calorie deficit, surely, it’s one of the reasons you are in a calorie deficit? Yes and no.
You see it’s my experience that eating a strict (think restrictive and limiting) diet only ever has one outcome, well two, but they’re both bad. You eat strictly during the week only to relax at the weekend, often binge eating and ruining your calorie deficit
You eat strictly for a couple of weeks or even months before quitting (because who are we kidding, it was never sustainable) and going back to your old eating habits i.e. the reason you decide to diet in the first place
I think you’ll agree that neither of these places are good places to be! So, yes, a strict diet can put you in a calorie deficit but it’s always short-lived due to the fact it’s not lifestyle friendly and sustainable.
Stop looking for the quick fix and realise that the key to long-term success is building a routine that’s sustainable for you. Work to build a way of eating that fits in with your lifestyle allows you room to eat the things you like and supports your training goal.
Related: What is Flexible Dieting?
Often when it comes to fat loss, what at first seems simple becomes unknowingly difficult for reasons you often don’t realise. Sometimes when you think you’re doing everything right, everything still goes wrong.
It times like these when a calorie deficit is not really a calorie deficit for a number of potential reasons;
The key to getting fat loss back on track is to identify the problem so you can fix it.